Dylan’s “Tell Ol Bill”: roots in a blues ballad, rhymes from the Romantic poets

Tell Ol’ Bill

by Larry Fyffe

Bob Dylan’s song ‘Tell Ol’ Bill’ has roots in a blues ballad:

“Tell old Bill when he comes home this morning ….”
(Traditional: Tell Old Bill)

Applying the ‘Rhyme Twist Test’ (see: Listen To The Dylanesque Whistle Blowing) reveals Ol’ Bill’s poetic roots, ie., Bob Dylan, often with a bit of variance, transfers end-rhymes or end-words of a poem to the lyrics of a song which is influenced by that particular poem.

A Romantic Transcendentalist at heart, Dylan faces the gloomy aspects of reality in his song lyrics, but still clings to hope of better days to come.

More so than does the melancholic Romanic poet John Keats:

I see a lily on thy brow
With anguish moist and fever-dew
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too
(John Keats: La Belle Dame Sans Merci)

The ‘lily’ and ‘fading rose’ in the poem are symbolic of death and decay.

The Keats’ poem inspires some of the lyrics of ‘Tell Ol’ Bill’ by Bob Dylan:

You trampled on me as you passed
Left the coldest kiss upon my brow
All of my doubts and fears have gone at last
I’ve nothing more to tell you now
(Bob Dylan: Tell Ol’ Bill)

Thematically, Dylan gathers a bit of light from the darkness; structurally, the singer/songwriter removes the poem’s ‘brow’ to the second line of the song, and provides a rhyme for it: ‘now’.

Follows be another poem by John Keats, again with its rather depressing mood finding its way into Dylan’s ‘Tell Ol’ Bill’:

For ever panting, and for ever young
All breathing human passion from above
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue
(John Keats: Ode To A Grecian Urn)

The English Romantic poet rhymes: ‘young’ and ‘tongue’.

Below, the verse from the Dylan song:

Beneath the thunder-blasted tree
The words are ringin’ off your tongue
The ground’s hard in times like these
Stars are cold, the night is young
(Bob Dylan: Tell Ol’ Bill)

The American songster rhymes: ‘tongue’ and ‘young’.

Now, a verse from a poem by a Victorian Romantic:

There’s not to make reply
There’s not to reason why
There’s but to do and die
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred
(Lord Tennyson: The Charge Of The Light Brigade)

The poet rhymes: ‘reply’, ‘why’, and ‘die’.

Influencing a verse from the song:

Tell ol’ Bill when he comes home
Anything is worth a try
Tell him that I’m not alone
That the hour has come to do or die
(Bob Dylan: Tell Ol’ Bill)

The singer/songwriter, speaking not of a doomed past event but of a possible successful one in the future, rhymes: ‘try’ with ‘die’.

Darker even than John Keats, Edgar Allen Poe, referenced in ‘Tell Ol’ Bill’ by ‘the thunder-blasted tree’, avoids the light of the sun-god Apollo, in which the Transcendentalists bathe. Lost in darkness, the Gothic Romantic American poet depicts Nature as sickly and decayed:

No more … no more … no more …..
Shall bloom the thunder-blasted tree
Or the stricken eagle soar!
(Edgar Allan Poe: To One In Paradise)

The Victorian poet Tennyson, alluded to in ‘Tell Ol’ Bill’, faced with Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory with its ‘tooth and claw’ dynamics, transforms Poe’s ‘stricken eagle’ into a Romantic Transcendentalist symbol of Nature’s strength and beauty, comparing the bird to the thunder-god Zeus:

The wringled sea beneath him crawls
He watches from the mountain walls
And like a thunder bolt he falls
(Lord Tennyson: The Eagle)

Another Romantic nature poet if he only had the time, Robert Frost is referenced by Dylan in ”Tell Ol’ Bill’:

Whose woods these are I think I know
His house is in the village through
He will not see me stopping here
To watch the woods fill up with snow
(Robert Frost: Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening)

Rhymed are: ‘know’, ‘though’, and ‘snow’.

Another verse of the song lyrics:

The evening sun is sinkin’ low
The woods are dark, the town isn’t new
They’ll drag you down, they’ll run the show
Ain’t no telling what they’ll do
(Bob Dylan: Tell Ol’ Bill)

Rhymed are: ‘low’, and ‘show’.

Frost’s poem contains the line: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep”; Dylan’s song: “The woods are dark, the town isn’t new”.

So there you have it: John Keats, Lord Tennyson, Edgar Allen Poe, and Robert Frost are just some of the Romantic poets who influence the song lyrics of Bob Dylan’s ‘Tell Ol’ Bill’.


You might also enjoy  

Tell Ol’ Bill: Dylan digs deep into the song’s origins to create a brilliant film song

What else is on the site

  • 1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.
  • 2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.
  • 3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.  A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that here.
  • 4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 
  • 5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.
  • 6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.

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7 Responses to Dylan’s “Tell Ol Bill”: roots in a blues ballad, rhymes from the Romantic poets

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    *correction: ‘village though’

  2. tantrictrick says:

    always thought the line was “the woods are dark, the town is too”, which would suggest no easy repose either in nature or amongst men.

  3. Simon says:

    The song also cribs profitably from Spenser’s Iambicum Trimetrum: “… lying reastlesse in heavy bed”. As the man said, immature poets imitate…

  4. Larry Fyffe says:

    tantrictrick….thanks for the heads up….Dylan definitely sings “the town is too” which makes more sense as you say…
    the site I happened to picked wrongly gives the lyrics as ‘isn’t new’ but others, on checking, get it right….one ‘take’ is a bit garbled which might explain the mistake though others are very clear…thanks again.

  5. Larry Fyffe says:

    correction: ‘thunder blasted trees” sings Dylan to go with ‘these’

  6. Larry Fyffe says:

    “To watch his woods fill up with snow”

  7. Larry Fyffe says:

    Of course with Dylan, a change in lyics of Ol’ Bill would not be surprising either.

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